What Do They Think of Themselves?
Dear Unknown Friends:
A person valuable for the understanding of the human self—both one’s own dear self and selves that loom large internationally, leaders of nations—is a man seen as far away now: Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, of England (1769-1822). He is an illustration of what Aesthetic Realism explains: the one way we can like ourselves is through wanting to like the world, through wanting to know and see justly people and things that are not ourselves. That explanation is hugely different from what psychiatrists and counselors have been telling people about how to have self-esteem.
Castlereagh, who held major posts under George III and later, was, from one point of view, one of the most successful politicians who ever lived. Yet he illustrates these statements by Eli Siegel:
The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt....[Contempt] is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker.
Castlereagh Is Told Of
It was a note in G.B. Woods’ English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement (1950), that made me want to comment on Castlereagh here. Identifying him briefly, Woods writes that Castlereagh
had been Secretary for Ireland and Secretary of War before he was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1812. At the time of the Irish rebellion in 1798, he was charged with encouraging inhuman punishments of the rebels; and during his whole administration he was noted for his contempt for all persons who did not belong to the aristocracy. In 1822 he committed suicide in a fit of insanity.
I was much affected by the use of the word contempt so close to insanity. Yes, Castlereagh is an instance of what Mr. Siegel was the philosopher to explain: “contempt [is] the cause of all mental disorder or disaster” (Self and World, p. 8).
Contempt—the feeling that in lessening another, one increases oneself—is very ordinary. But most persons are not in the position to have their contempt ruin millions of lives. Castlereagh was. “Encouraging inhuman punishments” of people comes from contempt for them; and the treatment he encouraged in Ireland—not only of “rebels” but of patriotically inclined citizens—gave rise to a famous statement in song: “They're hangin' men and women there for wearin' o' the green."
Then, as representative of England at the Congress of Vienna, Castlereagh was principal in making sure post-Napoleonic Europe returned to reactionary, monarchic rule. He worked to arrange a continent in which most human beings were without rights, would continue to be poor, and would exist to provide wealth for aristocrats.
Also, as the Columbia Encyclopedia notes, “he was chiefly blamed for repressive measures used to put down unrest in England.” He was seen as responsible for the “Peterloo Massacre” in Manchester. This was a deadly attack by cavalry on a peaceable meeting of 60,000 men, women, and children, held in behalf of more rights for the non-aristocratic classes.
Smoothness and Self-Loathing
I am writing on Castlereagh because it is necessary to see that those people who brutalize others loathe themselves for it, no matter how much aplomb they seem to show. They are self-despising within. A word used about Castlereagh by two important poets is smooth. If he were in office now, he would be on television giving the impression of savoir-faire and confidence. Here are lines of Byron about him, from Don Juan:
Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant!
Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,
And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
Transferr’d to gorge upon a sister shore.
(That is—after causing Ireland to bleed, Castlereagh wanted his cruelty to take in more, and continued it in England, the “sister shore.")
Shelley has these lines in “The Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester":
I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh;
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him.
In issue 245 of the present journal, Mr. Siegel quotes that stanza. And I know that what he says of Shelley he saw as true of Byron too:
The poet Shelley is exceedingly useful because the general tendency of his writings is to lessen the horrible smooth power of contempt in human life. [In the lines just quoted, Shelley] is chiefly angry at man’s being able to put a good face on that which is unjust, unfeeling. A good face is now being put on the unjust and the unfeeling.
It is a beautiful fact that Castlereagh, who had seemed so smooth, was against his own being—and was driven to slit his throat with a penknife just before he was to embark on a diplomatic mission. When we see that unjust people who are immensely powerful have not convinced the depths of themselves, and that they detest what they are even as they seem slick and mighty, we are better able to oppose injustice. We can better oppose the injustice that may be in a nation, and also our own injustice, our contempt.
Ambition and Poetry
In this TRO, we include part of a paper that award-winning filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman presented last summer at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Is a Man’s Greatest Ambition?” Mr. Kimmelman’s public service films The Heart Knows Better and What Does a Person Deserve?, against racism and homelessness, have been seen on television by millions of Americans in recent years. Both are based on, and quote, statements by Eli Siegel. And the first, for which Mr. Kimmelman received an Emmy, is shown at Yankee Stadium before every game.
We publish too a poem by Eli Siegel which is philosophic, playful—and both thrilling and strict in its hopefulness. Mr. Siegel shows that emptiness has variety and therefore is fulness too. As he does, he is combating one of the most miserable, contemptuous states of mind: the sense of emptiness and nullity people can get to and use to despise the world. This poem is a musical exemplification of the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The poem has that respect for the world which was constant in Mr. Siegel, and which made him the most intelligent, kind, artistic, passionately just person I know of in all history.